Fine Arts Column: Reflections on light through stained glass


Few things are as inescapable in our day-to-day experience as light, and there are few places on earth where it is entirely extinguished. Nevertheless, it often slips by our conscious thought entirely unnoticed. It surrounds us almost constantly, and without it, a great many things most of us are accustomed to would be near impossible. Without it, you certainly wouldn’t be reading this article, at least not with your eyes.

For the visual arts light has countless applications, the most obvious one being that of viewing it – it is difficult to appreciate Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” in pitch black. One could say that light is in this sense an accessory to art. Certain artists and certain forms of art, however, have endeavored to bring the oft-overlooked feature of light to the foreground.

I think in particular of stained glass, something which itself often goes unnoticed but whose absence would nonetheless be sorely missed. One need only sit in a sunlit church building to notice this. Not only does stained glass bear in itself some image of the sacred, but it transforms this immaterial environment of light which surrounds us into something still recognizable as light yet the more noticeable for its difference.

Perhaps this is why stained glass is so suited for use in religious architecture. It reflects two related aspects of mankind’s relationship with God. In one sense, the transformation of the sun’s rays into varying hues and intensities marks the sanctuary as a sacred place, somewhere set apart from the mundane and the ordinary. In this goal it is united with any number of other architectural features that make a church what it is. The aim is to increase the beauty of every surrounding, that we may more fully pray “I have loved, O Lord, the beauty of thy house; and the place where thy glory dwelleth” (Psalms 26:8).

A second theological analogy to be seen in stained glass is in how this transformation takes place. It is through these images of the saints, Christ and the mysteries of the Church that light passes. One can see in this a reflection of how Christ transforms us. When we are brought into the Paschal Mystery, we are, in the words of St. Paul, “transformed” by the renewal of our minds (Romans. 12:2). Much like sunlight through stained glass, Christ makes us into “a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17), capable of sharing his grace to those around us.

It is remarkable to consider that, though stained glass lessens the intensity of the light which passes through it, it nonetheless heightens the intensity of its effects. I am reminded in this regard of an essay by G. K. Chesterton entitled “Romantic in the Rain” in which he reflects upon how rain darkens the sky yet brightens the earth. The work of this painted light has a similar end, training us to view the space around us with a keener eye. How much can be done with so little. In our own lives it is the same, for we worship the God who feeds 5,000 with five loaves and two fish. How much Our Lord does with the little we give him.